I first met Sarah Schulman at a tarot-card-reading party thrown by a mutual friend. A bunch of people were crushed into an apartment on Atlantic Avenue, some with decks of cards they'd brought, others to have their fortunes read.
I was too intimidated to ask Sarah to read my tarot — I'd loved her novel After Dolores. Her study on gentrification and liberalism, Gentrification of the Mind, had become a sort of workbook for a claque of my fellow grad-school students. She didn't read my cards, but she did, in a way, tell me my fortune. I told her about my discouragement about getting my work published, and she told me about the many paths her works have taken to publication. "It will happen," she said, and she turned out to be correct.
I've been excited about her newest book, Conflict Is Not Abuse, since I heard its premise: Schulman argues that in intimate relationships, in our communities, and in global politics, there is the tendency to "overstate harm" — to claim that the most endangered are instead dangerous. This is done to justify making them objects of anxiety, separation, and punishment. The dominant forces — be it an abusive lover in a relationship, a society that insists that citizens would not be killed by police if they only presented themselves correctly, or governments that insist they are being attacked by refugees, the poor, or immigrants — claim their own innocence. And they also assert that those who do not conform are an active threat.
This argument has become even more urgent as we enter the unknown world of a Donald Trump presidency.
Schulman outlines this phenomenon so that we can recognize it when it is happening. And she argues that overstating harm is possible to stop, if bystanders step up and become what we sometimes call allies, or as the writer Mychal Denzel Smith argues we should call them, accomplices. Schulman says that the point is to intervene, even at the cost of losing our own social status or something even harsher.
I was especially struck by how prescient this book is about our current election cycle and about the trends in global politics in the West. The past year, as news of Brexit rolled in, as I read about the fear and paranoia surrounding Syrian refugees, as I saw politicians in the United States continually overstate harm caused by marginalized people and use this fear to win elections, I wondered how we could break free from these narratives that cause so much damage and offer no real solutions. Sarah's book provided a way to move forward.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Broadly speaking, how do the observations in Conflict Is Not Abuse play out in a Trump presidency?
Sarah Schulman: Unfortunately, the election has in many ways proven the thesis of the book. On one hand, we have a bully, Trump, who is constantly telling us how victimized he is. Especially when some person or media outlet tells the truth about him, he lashes out at them as unfair or assaultive.
At the same time, we have a group of people — working-class and poor whites — who are actually oppressed, who have projected their anxieties into blaming immigrants, the very folks who are absolutely not responsible for the loss of factory and industrial jobs.
This construction fits exactly into my book's analysis that there are two entities involved in calling difference "abuse": the supremacist and the traumatized. The supremacist (Trump and his ilk) cannot tolerate difference, opposition, or being asked to question themselves, [or] to explain inconsistencies or lies. They feel entitled to never have to be self-critical, or accountable. And we see this in the intimate realm as well, in cliques, or communities, or families. But unrecovered traumatized people can also be a mirror image of these behaviors, because sometimes, when we are hurt, our selves are so fragile and it is so hard to keep it together, that any request to rethink our assumptions feels like an "attack."